Whitstable History & Heritage

Whitstable Harbour

Around the mid-18th century, goods and passengers began to be transported by ship between London and Whitstable and a toll road was built to the cathedral city of Canterbury. These improvements in transport led to the town’s development as a seaside resort. The first advertisements for bathing machines at Whitstable appeared in 1768. In 1793 the rights to harvest the oyster beds were bought by the newly established Company of Free Fishers and Dredgers of Whitstable, the successor to the Whitstable Company of Dredgers.

Between roughly 1775 and 1875 the well smacks or early longliners out of Barking and other local fishing ports would collect lugworms and whelks from Whitstable’s bait-diggers and dredgers before beginning their tour for prime fish north to Iceland. Whelks suspended in net bags in the well could live for a while due to circulating fresh water.

Built in 1890, when dredging for oysters was an important industry, the Whitstable Oyster Yawl ‘The Favourite’ can still be seen today, as it rests on Island Wall and commemorates the oyster fishing and shipbuilding industries that once thrived.

Whitstable is the birthplace of the diving industry evolving from the seagoing salvage operations of the inhabitants that first attracted, nurtured and then exploited the diving helmet and dress in the early 1800s.

In addition to the massive contribution to marine civil engineering, the impact of the diving dress on the maritime operations of the unfortunate nations embroiled in two World Wars was enormous. The present world-wide diving industry, including the diving companies operating offshore to recover the oil and gas reserves, owes its existence to the enterprising divers of Whitstable.

On 3 May 1830, the world’s first steam-hauled passenger and freight railway service was opened by the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway Company. Designed by William James, the line ran six miles (10 km) from Westgate in Canterbury to Whitstable town centre. The railway line’s initials (C&WR) and Whitstable’s shellfish industry eventually led to its nickname, the Crab and Winkle Railway.

Trains were driven by a locomotive for part of the journey, but on inclined planes were pulled on ropes by steam-driven stationary winding engines located at Tyler Hill and Clowes Wood. The locomotive used was the Invicta, an 0-4-0 inclined cylinder tender locomotive built by Robert Stephenson, the son of engineer George Stephenson. Whitstable harbour was opened by the railway company in 1832, and the rail line was extended to enable goods, mainly coal, to be directly transferred from ships onto the trains. In 1834, the world’s first season tickets were issued for the C&WR line.

The Invicta locomotive was retired in 1840 and replaced by horses until a third winding engine was built at South Street. The Invicta was kept for scrap, but in 1898 work began on its restoration, which continued intermittently until its completion in 1977 by the National Railway Museum in York. On 3 May 1980 the locomotive was returned to Canterbury to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the line and today there are hopes that the Invicta will soon return to Whitstable.

A plant to manufacture tarmacadam was built beside Whitstable Harbour in 1936. The harbour gradually fell into decay after the Second World War, but in 1958 the Whitstable Urban District Council purchased and repaired the harbour with the intention of rejuvenating the town’s economy.

The Crab and Winkle Line finally closed in 1953, but much of the line was reopened as a footpath and cycleway in 1999 under the stewardship of a local charity, the Crab and Winkle Line Trust.

This is just a short overview of Whitstable’s amazing history and heritage. To discover much more visit the Whitstable Museum situated in Oxford Street, where you can find lots of interesting facts, photos and exhibits.

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